Broadway and the MoviesThroughout a career that spans more than half a century, two Oscars, one hundred films and four marriages, Bette Davis has shown again and again that talent is far more enduring than a pretty face. Her perpetual hallmarks are her huge eyes, red gash of a mouth and a raspy voice that delivers cutting candor with inimitable style. Her temperament, fierce belief in her own ability, and her distinctive looks makd Bette Davis stand out from the rest.
Bette Davis was born in Lowell Massachusetts in 1908.
She studied acting at the John Murray Anderson School and had the distinction of being fired from her first job by George Cukor. She went on to a big success in "Broken Dishes", in 1929, her Broadway debut, and then failed a Goldwyn screen test, but was then signed by Universal who put her in Bad Sister ,1931. The same year she also had a good part in the first filming of Waterloo Bridge. A much more "hard boiled" movie than the glossy 1940 version with Vivian Leigh and Robert Taylor. In this pre-code filming of Waterloo Bridge, Myra (played by Mae Clark) is a prostitute when she first meets Roy, and he is too sheltered to recognize it, and Bette Davis plays Roy's upscale sister.
When she first arrived in Hollywood in 1930, fresh from Broadway and with an offer from Universal, nobody could quite see why she had been hired. She didn't look like the conventional beauties of the time and her early roles - in terrible films- were instantly forgettable. The exceptions being Three on a Match and Waterloo Bridge.
Warner Brothers took her up after Universal's contract expired and by the time she appeared in Ex-lady, 1933, she already had a minor star status. When she turned "dramatic" in Of Human Bondage in 1934, opposite Leslie Howard, people began to take her seriously. Bette had begged for the role, and her performance as the harsh and cruel waitress who enslaves Leslie Howard won her universal praise. There are several other versions of this film, and some of them are better in some ways, but none of the other actresses could compare with Davis as the dreadful Mildred.
She rode the 1930's with numerous success after success, and eventually had her own decorative leading man, George Brent. Davis married Harmon Nelson in 1932 and divorced him in 1938. The success of his wife was too much for Harmon to handle.
The Later YearsDavis won her first Oscar for Dangerous in 1935, and a second for Jezebel in 1938. Her other classics include Dark Victory, The Little Foxes, and The Old Maid.
The 1940's were another rocking decade for Davis who was already a legend in her own time. She continually churned out blockbuster after blockbuster such as, The Great Lie, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and Old Aquaintance. The 1940's was also the decade in which Davis had a daughter, Barbara Hyman (B.D. Davis)
Davis, by all accounts was a doting and proud mother.
The Star in 1952 won her one of her 10 Academy Award nominations. After returning to Broadway to do a musical, Two's Company, she underwent an operation for osteomylitis of the jaw, and from the remainder of the 50s there was a lull in her career.
It was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962, co-starring Joan Crawford, that started a new Bette Davis boom. Davis and Crawford were always being compared as to who was the superior actress, and who was the bigger star.
A run of intense and eccentric roles in films from the early 60s- to the late 70s followed.
Films are hard to find at my age," says Davis, who Hollywood honored with the American Film Institue's Life Achievement Award in 1977. "I don't want to end up playing little old grandmothers."
She elected to make her one-woman show around America rather than endure such a fate, commenting: "I guess audiences may be surprised I still can walk across a state at 74!"
During the 1980's things seemed to be going well for Davis. An occasional talk show appearance, or movie was her comfort zone, then she was diagnosed with breast cancer and hospitalized when her daughter B.D., published a nasty tell all book called, "My Mother's Keeper, in which she portrayed Bette Davis in the same light that Christina Crawford fashioned her "Mommie Dearest", a few years earlier.
The book was a flop and most believed it was and un-true account of Davis in order to cash in on the "Mommie Dearest" success that Christina Crawford was now enjoying. Her Book became an instant best-seller, a hit movie and led to numerous television interviews for the next dozen years.
Bette was hurt by the book, but she forgave her daughter and went on to make The Whales Of August in 1987 with Lillian Gish, and Olivia De Havilland.
She died of breast cancer in 1989 at the age of 81.
Her las films for the big screen was Watcher In The Woods in 1980, mad for Disney. Since then she has appeared in several TV films including White Mama.
In 1983 she suffered a mastectomy and stroke which temporarily slowed and her down.